Look, I know Duke Nukem's history. I was a teenager when it came out, and I played it and loved it, and even now his various off-colour remarks and the pauses in the carnage to quickly offer some cash to a nearby stripper raise a smile. It's unquestionably the product of a slightly dafter and less intelligent time, but equally, it's easy to class under the heading of "mostly harmless". I don't want to be all right-on over this issue, but the extent of the discomfort I feel at what Gearbox has implemented here is immense.
The defence, already mooted very publicly by hugely popular webcomic and arbitrator of gaming taste Penny-Arcade, is that hey - in Call of Duty you slaughter thousands, so how is slapping a girl to calm her down in Duke Nukem Forever "offensive"?
It's a persuasive argument. It's also stupid and disingenuous. The slaughter of thousands by an improbable super-soldier is pretty blatantly within the realms of utter fantasy. Slapping women? That's something which, sadly, happens every day in countless households around the world. There's no funny, goofy way to give a player - playing as an all-American hero - a button which slaps a woman to calm her down, because there's no way to do it without reinforcing the basic and sadly still widely held view that this is an acceptable thing to do.
We, meaning the media and gamers on the whole, defend this medium from allegations of promoting violence because we know that the distinguishing line between fantasy and reality is clear to all but an extraordinarily tiny minority of people - and those people have psychological and social problems that are bluntly unrelated to their videogame consumption. What Penny-Arcade and other defenders of Gearbox' woman-slapping action button have done is to confuse the false allegation of inspiring violent behaviour with the altogether more likely and insidious action of reinforcing stereotypes and prejudices.
The vast, vast majority of gamers are not murderers. However, a few evenings on Xbox Live or World of Warcraft or any other online environment will show you beyond the shadow of a doubt that at the very least, a significant minority of gamers most certainly are loud-mouthed misogynists. The anecdotal experience of female core gamer friends, many of whom have had to hide their gender in order to have good experiences on Xbox Live or in MMORPGs, backs this up entirely.
Sexism remains part and parcel of interactive entertainment, because by and large the core games industry is still a boys' treehouse to which girls are only grudgingly invited
Should Gearbox, a respected and well-liked company in its field, be debasing itself by pandering to those people? Sure, they're the audience - at least, they're part of the audience - but even commercially, will the number of thick-browed cretins who decide to buy Duke Nukem Forever because you can slap women really outnumber the number of people who are utterly repelled from going anywhere near the game as a consequence? And, if those numbers really do fall down on the side of the sexist neanderthals, is Gearbox going to sleep soundly over a job well done?
Sexism remains part and parcel of interactive entertainment, because by and large the core games industry is still a boys' treehouse to which girls are only grudgingly invited. That being said, things have improved immensely - there are more and more prominent females in the industry, and an increasingly wide understanding of the fact that there is a big audience out there to whom a girl in a metal bikini is the basis for rolled eyes rather than opened wallets. Yet I believe that it's still important to challenge the most utterly shameful examples of sexism, and homophobia, and yes, even racism in gaming, because a reminder every now and then that the audience isn't entirely made up of white American 17-year-old straight males doesn't go amiss.
Moreover, this isn't about censorship - to which I remain implacably opposed (although not to age ratings, which are an entirely different issue). Rather, it's about game companies, particularly those with excellent reputations and those entrusted with well-known franchises and brands, simply having the maturity to remember that they're part of an ecosystem, part of a wider entertainment medium that's still finding its way in the world - and part of a wider society in which women, and many minority groups, are still discriminated against (sometimes violently) every day.
It's important sometimes to stand back from what you're making and ask, is this cheap and slightly uncomfortable laugh really worth it? Does it add so much value that it's worth making light of domestic violence, of misogyny? In this case, the balance is clear. For Gearbox to recognise this and drop the feature wouldn't be censorship, it would be maturity.
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